Byron Nicholai, Yup’ik, sings and dances for culture and community wellness.

Must See: This 16-Year-Old Singer from Alaska Is Amazing

Chelsey Luger

“To all the people out there who know how to sing or dance the way your culture does, I hope you’re teaching the young ones, because if you’re not going to, then who is? Think about that.” –Byron Nicholai

It is no coincidence that this person, who is so deeply connected to his culture and so passionate about creating music with a positive message, was one of the sweetest and most polite young people I have ever had the pleasure of speaking with. He truly embodies what it means to be Well For Culture.

I am just one of 12,000 people who follows Byron on his Facebook page, “I Sing. You Dance.” And just like thousands of others, I became a fan from the moment I first watched one of his videos. If you have not checked it out yet, I suggest you do. The kid is simply adorable, and his songs are simply great. What’s not to like?

I recently talked to Byron about his music and his culture. Here’s a bit of that conversation.

Tell me about your background.
I’m 16-years-old from a small village in Alaska, Toksook Bay. I am Yup’ik. Yup’ik means “the real people.” That’s what they used to say a long time ago, our ancestors.

How did you get started with singing?
I’ve been singing since I was in preschool. I love to sing so much. When I got a little older, my cousin Moses Charles told me to practice Yuraq with him – that’s like dance practice. I thought I was just going to dance but he made me sing with the group, too; so that’s how I started as the dance group leader. I’m a junior in high school now, so next year after I leave, somebody will have to take my place. The songs I sing now are not really traditional songs; the songs I sing now are a little different. The traditional songs from the Yuraq have three verses and mine have one. I started singing this new way when I was probably 13 or 14. My sister told me it’s unique – that she never heard anybody else change the songs up like I have.

Have you always been a performer?
Well, my first performance in front of a lot of people I was in first grade at an annual festival in Bethel called Cama-i. We did a group dance performance. After that, I mostly kept my songs to myself, so nobody really knew how I sang because I never sang in front of a lot of people.

How did you get started with sharing your videos?
One day I was playing with an app where it makes my voice sound like a chipmunk. I posted it on my Facebook profile and a lot of people liked it, so I decided to make a page to show people my singing. I uploaded videos using that chipmunk app until I got a lot of comments, people telling me to use my original voice. When I finally decided to do that they said my real voice was better than the chipmunk voice so I used my real voice now.

Good! Your real voice is great!
Thank you. Every time I sing I get a little bit better. I have been practicing. When I make my videos, I just sing what’s on my mind – it’s kind of like freestyle. Once I opened up to the people, I never thought they would think my songs are amazing. The positive feedback that I get makes me motivated to create more videos. I never expected my page to go viral!

What else keeps you motivated?
It seems like there’s a lot of young people who are starting to get more into their culture. One time I got a message from a young lady who said that I inspired some of her classmates to start practicing their traditional dance – that amazed me how I got them closer to their culture a little bit more.

Do people ever ask you to teach them songs?
Yes, if I had the opportunity to teach other people I would, but it’s hard considering I live in the village. I love to share my songs because I love to sing so much. Getting the motivation to sing is sometimes hard because I can’t always think of ideas. I don’t want to just sing about anything, I want it to have a meaning or a message to share with the people.

Staying connected to culture is such an important part of good health. What else do you do to stay healthy?
I love to play basketball. I’m the point guard on my team and last year we got second in the whole state. I also love to ride around with my friends on ATVs. That’s what I just got back from doing. It’s so fun. In the future, after high school, I think I would like to attend University of Alaska Anchorage and study computer science. I’m interested in computers and the way they work and I want to have an education.

What type of music do you like to listen to?
In the Native category I like Antoine Edwards and Butchie Eastman. Other than that I don’t really listen to music – I make it!

Did you make your drum?
Yes, I made my drum. And if you look closely in some of my videos, you can see a drum hanging from the wall – that one my grandfather made. The ancestors used to make the drum out of seal intestine; they don’t really make it like that anymore.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Well, there are two things. One is that a lot of people send me messages all the time asking what tribe I’m from. I don’t know how to respond to that question because I’m not from a tribe – I am Yu’pik. So, I’m sorry if I can’t answer that question. Another thing is that some people have been asking me to make a CD. One person even told me he would buy 10 copies if I had a CD – pretty amazing! So, I would like to do that – to make a CD and put it on iTunes, but I don’t know how. It’s difficult to get the supplies and stuff like that. Once I get that figured out, I’ll probably put an album on iTunes. I hope somebody can help me with that.

Chelsey Luger. Photo courtesy Eller Bonifacio

Chelsey Luger is Anishinaabe and Lakota from North Dakota. She hopes to be a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for health and wellness. Follow her on Twitter @CPLuger. Her Well For Culture column runs every Friday. Ideas for articles? Email her at [email protected]

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